Palo Alto has long been known for the quality of its public schools and the teachers and aides who create a dynamic and rich learning environment for our children.
It's also known for parents with very high expectations who not only ask a lot of their kids but also of teachers and administrators.
These high-powered and high-achieving parents provide immense financial and volunteer support to the schools. But they also too often develop a sense of entitlement, which can lead to a perception that some parents have more influence over their child's educational experience than others.
When the school board or superintendent allow these parents, whether big donors, active school volunteers or friends of school board members, to have the ear of those in charge, distrust and resentment builds, conflicts arise and the entire system is compromised. And when secrecy sets in, trust in the fairness of the system is jeopardized.
It therefore takes both a strong superintendent and a strong school board to successfully and equitably lead a district like Palo Alto and ensure that all students get the education, attention and discipline they need, and that teachers are respected, supported and held properly accountable.
For too many years we have had neither an effective school board nor superintendent, resulting in a lot of messes that now need to be cleaned up. That is what this election is all about: repair and healing.
Thankfully, there is reason for optimism. Early indications are that our brand-new superintendent, Max McGee, is intent on addressing problems that have been festering for way too long.
For example, he has made clear he intends to strongly support educational innovation but will also rigorously evaluate programs and then implement best practices throughout the district rather than allow the inefficiencies of many similar but different programs (or policies).
He has vowed to deal with difficult or controversial issues head-on and see them through to resolution quickly and openly, not let them drag on and become mired in a transparency-killing district bureaucracy, committees and closed-door meetings.
He has pronounced the need to get a long-overdue new elementary school open after years of irrational starts and stops. And, in his first significant personnel move, he has made the director of special education one of his direct reports, acknowledging that this program is in need of better leadership, a change in culture and greater oversight.
But to succeed in fixing problems and moving our district forward, McGee and our community also need a well-functioning school board. With both incumbents whose seats are up for election, Barb Mitchell and Dana Tom, wisely choosing not to seek third terms, the community is assured of badly needed new voices and skills, and hopefully a change in the operation of the board.
This election is less about differences on specific school issues and more about who can best restore the trust and confidence of a school community tired of conflict, defensiveness and a lack of strong leadership and logical decision-making.
Four of the five candidates bring stellar qualifications, but since only two slots are open, choices must be made. And while we value the backgrounds of all the candidates, in our opinion Terry Godfrey and Ken Dauber are clearly in the best position to work with McGee to chart a fresh path forward and begin a healthy rebuilding process.
Dauber narrowly missed being elected two years ago after an ugly and unfair whisper campaign made him persona non grata among school insiders who felt he would rock the boat too much with his probing questions, his data-analysis expertise and his advocacy for addressing student stress.
This time Dauber's base of support has extended to all corners of the district, as many parents have come to realize that the last two years of the district's mishandling of school bullying policies, fighting with the Office for Civil Rights, running up ridiculous legal bills and tolerating one administrative misstep after another have proven him largely right.
No one, and certainly none of the other candidates, has committed anything close to the time, energy and patience Dauber has in following, studying and advocating on district issues during these difficult two years. He has been a voice for reason, transparency, data-driven decision-making and for respectful treatment of all parents, teachers and students.
A sociologist with a Ph.D. and college professor turned Google engineer with educational data-crunching and analysis in his background, Dauber has practically been a sixth board member in the room at board meetings, often weighing in on issues with more clarity and insight than board members. We are squandering this resource to our detriment if we do not elect him to the board this time around.
His early campaign positions on opening a 13th elementary school, on bringing back foreign-language instruction to elementary schools, on collecting and using data to evaluate programs, on cutting back on legal services and other expenditures that do not help kids, and on rejecting the board's resolution criticizing the federal Office for Civil Rights have mostly been embraced by the other candidates.
Our other choice is Terry Godfrey, who is also ready and able to make an immediate positive impact on the board and the district. A former Intel senior financial and human resources manager; PTA Council president and immediate past president of PiE, the district-wide fundraising organization; and part of the Project Safety Net leadership team, she knows the district backwards and forwards and has wide support and deep connections in the community.
Freed from the constraints of having to represent and speak on behalf of organizations like the PTA and PiE, Godfrey has surprised us during the campaign with her candor and her clear, thoughtful and firm positions, including several that are critical of the board and administration and that show strong independence.
For example, after listening carefully to the board's June discussion on adopting a resolution critical of the Office for Civil Rights, she decided the resolution was a bad idea and has made clear in the campaign that she does not support spending any money on the lobbying efforts it authorized. She is critical of the way the current board avoids documenting their actions by not making formal motions or taking votes on important issues, which she correctly observes leads to confusion, muddled decision-making and a lack of accountability.
As a former HR manager, she said she would have voted to fire former Paly principal Phil Winston in the wake of the district's findings of sexual harassment. And she believes the hiring of a district communications coordinator was a mistake given other district priorities. She has also helped advocate for special-education families and has seen first hand the need for improvements in this program. And she has been a leading proponent of foreign-language instruction in the elementary schools.
Like Dauber, Godfrey will help to elevate the functioning of the board, bring an independent voice and move us away from the "group think" that has entrapped the current board.
Gina Dalma and Catherine Crystal Foster each offer strong backgrounds as education professionals that make them well-qualified to serve, but neither has the depth of experience within the district that makes them competitive with Godfrey or Dauber.
Dalma is the senior education program officer for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and is immersed in all the education issues facing our diverse region, especially relating to the transition to Common Core and the achievement gap. She was born in Mexico and offers an unusual opportunity to diversify the board. She is strongly policy-oriented and believes our district should be collaborating much more closely with cutting-edge districts and Stanford's School of Education to implement proven educational reforms and innovations.
Foster is a non-practicing lawyer who has done extensive consulting in educational policy, programming and evaluation. She recently completed a brief stint as executive director of the Peninsula College Fund, a small nonprofit that provides low-income, first-generation college students with scholarship and academic assistance. She has emphasized her commitment to addressing the achievement gap and evaluating the many district programs that are aimed at helping at-risk students, as well as improving and shortening board meetings and creating more transparency in district decision-making.
The fifth candidate, Jay Cabrera, is a 1998 Gunn and UC Santa Cruz graduate who admits being unfamiliar with local school issues but emphasizes the value of having a younger and more recent graduate on the board. He is a strong advocate for using technology to enable greater community participation in district decision-making.
As often happens, all five candidates have begun sounding very similar on most issues facing the district. The biggest divide has been over the school board's handling of parent bullying complaints and the various civil-rights cases brought by the Office for Civil Rights.
Godfrey, Dauber, Dalma and Cabrera have been unequivocal in their opposition to the actions of the board in deciding to spend district resources to lobby nationally for changes in OCR procedures and fight for the re-opening of a two-year-old settled case, while Foster has taken a very troubling nuanced position.
She has said it is "inappropriate" and "irresponsible" for anyone to speculate or take a position on the board's actions on OCR without examining all the confidential materials that the board has seen but has not released to the public. Her statement that if she could determine that OCR made all the mistakes that the resolution enumerated she would have voted for it shows the same lack of vision as the board for how the district should move beyond this controversy and stop diverting precious resources to it.
Her position criticizing those who have expressed their opinions publicly on a matter under consideration by the school board is especially disheartening, as is her own complete public silence during the last two years on any matters that came before the board on any subject, including the OCR controversies. This is not leadership.
If they take a more active role in district issues going forward, we think both Foster and Dalma will be excellent candidates in two years when three board seats will be open. The community would be lucky to have a board made up of these four people, and we hope these two will keep their passion for kids and improving our district alive and be back in 2016.
For now, however, we urge the election of Terry Godfrey and Ken Dauber as the best way to restore public confidence in the governance of our school district.